Today is World Bipolar Day, and as someone whose life changed for the better upon opening up about my own condition, I feel the need to speak to the moment.
Over the course of surviving my condition — one that has proven fatal for many — I’ve been to the brink and back many times. Before being properly diagnosed, I was often completely adrift. My anger had no shut off valve and my sadness, which seemed to function beyond all comfort, could only be dulled. When my world became too dark or colorless, I would retreat into my own mind, and live there, writing stories in my head, abusing drugs, and ignoring everything that overwhelmed me — which meant ignoring most of life.
From memories of better times, to the theatrics of my imagination, there were plenty of places to hide. And whether it was the mess in my apartment or the prospect of working a nine-to-five, nothing that other people seemed innately capable of ever seemed possible to me.
It was a hard world to live in. But I didn’t live there alone. Unlike a lot of people, I lived through the best and worst of my adult life, as someone surviving bipolar disorder, with the love of my life close by. Love is of course no remedy for mental illness, and staying together meant living through some very dark times. But amid that darkness, we never lost sight of each other. And having survived the pains of addiction and the heartbreak of our mutual and individual struggles, I feel like, these days, there isn’t much in the world that we can’t face together.
I won’t speak to who he is too much here. Unlike me, he’s a very private, introverted person. I can tell you that loves his guitar and a good television show (although he will tolerate some bad ones), and that he has excellent taste in literature. It’s easy to miss a lot of things about him, because he’s very unimposing and patient, and because he’s not exactly eager to get to know most people (I mean, can you blame him?). When we met, well over a decade ago, we probably wouldn’t have gotten to know each other well at all if I weren’t such a loud, forward presence. We’ve always played off each other well that way. His quiet humor, my boundless emotion.
But those boundless emotions can be a lot to cope with, for a person living with bipolar disorder, and for those who love them.
My partner didn’t always understand why I was the way I was, and there were times when he resented me for it — just as there have been times when I’ve resented myself for it. We’ve been through separation, heartbreak and misunderstanding, but from the time we fell in love, back in 2002, we’ve never been far apart. And today, at the age of 35, I realize how lucky I am that we are together, in love, and always willing to fight for one another.
So what’s gotten us this far? Aside from complimentary personalities, I would say it’s an understanding that not everything that’s unique about a mentally ill person is a symptom that needs to be stomped out. Medication saved my life. I’ll likely never live without it. But it will never make me “normal,” and that’s okay. I can’t be with someone who wants “normal,” and I don’t want to be “normal” any more than I want “a normal life.”
Fires can burn brightly without burning out of control and taking down every structure around them. And to be honest, I couldn’t begin to tell you where my symptoms end and the rest of me begins, because my illness isn’t some tumor, waiting to be cut out of my psyche. It’s part of me. It’s severity needs to be checked so that the hyper-empathy and anger that fuels so much of my life and work doesn’t shut down my ability to move forward, but the ways in which I am different aren’t wholly problematic, to me or to others.
I don’t say this to romanticize my illness. It’s not romantic. It’s a painful struggle, and at times, it’s a fight for survival. But I think that’s true for a lot of people who struggle in their own ways, and at times, we do find love in struggle, just as we find laughter and beauty. If we’re lucky, that is.
I write these words as someone who’s been very lucky, in a number of ways, and I have a lot of love for the people who keep me lucky. And one of those people is my husband.
I know know it gets lonely out there. Those of us who are wired quite differently than others can have a hard time plugging in, and sometimes, we just opt out. But I wanted to write this piece to say that our loneliness doesn’t always have to lead to the depths of isolation, addiction or worse. I wanted to write this piece to celebrate someone who knows me, and who knows that there will always be days when I’m not okay — someone who’s ready to face those days with me.
If you’re struggling with bipolar disorder, or anything that makes your mind move differently than most, you should know that kind of love is possible.
In my partner, I found more than mere tolerance of the fact that I won’t accept the world on its own terms. When I dream out loud and repaint my surroundings with an eye towards transformation, he doesn’t see me as simply building forward in spite of my illness. My high speed thoughts, my stubbornness and the willfulness of my creativity can be very productive, but they can also make for a very bumpy ride. But my partner loves all of me, and when I’m tired, I can wrap myself up in that love, and keep warm through the hard times.
So here’s to the love of my life, and here’s hoping that everyone who struggles finds the love they need in this world, in whatever form they need it. We don’t need a romantic partner to be who we are, or to thrive in this world, but we all deserve to be loved, and to know that we don’t have to be “normal” to bring something worthwhile into the world.
So Donald Trump discovered that he wasn’t welcome in Chicago, and some people have a lot of feelings about it. Some of those people hail from the most predictable of corners – Trump supporters, Fox News fans, my friend’s uncle who thinks protests are stupid and too damn loud, etc. Honestly, as someone who was out there protesting on Friday, I would think we’d done a poor job if these types weren’t displeased. I’m not writing these words because I want to respond to their critiques, because there’s no point in arguing with such people.
But the leftists who are shaming protesters?
Your behavior is a special kind of shameful, and you need to find some seats.
From Hillary Clinton to sanctimonious columnists, leftist equivocation in the face of fascism abounds. A full spectrum of people who reject fascism held the line Friday night. Students marched. Young Black leaders staged imagery and action. Church groups, antifa and young people from around the city turned up. I saw artful expression, righteous indignation, and a refusal to be shoved back by bullying fascists.
At an intersection where young Black protesters were connecting their rejection of Donald Trump to other upcoming electoral issues, like getting rid of States Attorney Anita Alvarez, I watched those who held the line get attacked by Trump fans and pummeled by police. They were brave. It was not their duty in that moment to, as Hillary Clinton prescribed, melt the hearts of white supremacists. It was their right to stand their ground and push back if necessary to defend their lives and dignity.
Equating the violence of the oppressor with the actions of those who defend against that violence is a willfully blind indulgence of white supremacy.
As we’ve seen, time and again, in recent history, marginalized people in the United States will no longer accept the idea that they must politely endure violence and humiliation, simply to prove that they are above such things and deserving of better treatment. And when they are staring down racist cops and people who actually “Heil Hitler,” they aren’t going to stop to contemplate whether what they are doing is consistent with your hollow, incremental vision of change.
As for the arguments that Trump’s base will only be further energized by these protests, I’m going to have to ask for a reality check. What energized these people in the first place? A Black president? A movement for Black lives? The highly controversial assertion that those lives matter? Anything marginalized people do to affirm the value of their lives and liberty will inflame those who are threatened by the prospect of equity. Should Black and Brown people quietly play along with a society that has been built in opposition to our well being, because doing otherwise might excite some racists? Should we quiet down about not wanting to be killed or deported en masse as well? Should we stop making accomplishments that might make white people feel threatened?
Or should you perhaps do a better job organizing against fascists, rather than talking smack from the sidelines?
Read history. Backlashes happen. Every time a society moves forward or swings left, you’ll get push back from those whose privilege has been imperiled. If your solution is to tell marginalized people to be quieter, because they might rile up the bigots, you may want to look up the tactical history of the word “appeasement.”
In any case, I will have more to say about Friday, but I’ll probably say as little as I can moving forward about the critiques I’ve referred to, because they’re ridiculous, and I’m actually a little embarrassed for some of these “free speech” crusaders, who don’t seem to know the difference between being outlawed and being unwelcome.
The podium of a filthy rich fascist is a pretty silly place to park your concerns about “free speech,” but in truth, there was no denial of expression here. Your right to free speech, as protected by the first amendment, is not a license to speak without being talked over or told to go away. The first amendment addresses issues of governmental interference, and rightly so. Because while the government has no right to shut down political expression, I have every right to tell a fascist to shut the fuck up. That may hurt his rich, white male feelings, but the absence of accommodation is not a violation of one’s rights.
I understand why some privileged individuals might find that distinction of fact confusing. The world generally allows them to expect the kind of accommodation that others are denied. When you’re used to getting your way, inconvenience can feel like injustice and oppression – and whining and tantrums often follow.
The truth is, no one prevented Trump from taking the stage Friday night, in a physical or legal sense. He was simply put in a position where, for once, it wouldn’t have been him, hundreds of fans of fascism, and one or two people of color to kick around. Like most bullies, Trump’s bravery didn’t match his bluster. When faced with a loud and lively crowd from a city that wants nothing to do with him, the man simply cowered.
To be clear: a fascist felt too unwelcome to speak in Chicago. That’s not a failure of liberty. That’s a sign that, for all our failings, Chicago still has some greatness to speak of. It means that we, as a city, have a spine that can stiffen in the face of fascism, and really, I hope the whole country figures out how to do the same, because we’re living in frightening times.
But to those who’ve hopped on soapboxes about Trump being “no platformed” and whatever else: stop and take in what’s actually happened. Someone awful, whose rise to power is already a threat to the safety of a great many marginalized people, had a bad night. If you can’t call that a just outcome, then just find a way to move on. Because crying a river and hurling insults over Trump’s failure to appear doesn’t make you righteous. It makes you ridiculous.
So if you want to be taken seriously in this world, stop blaming protesters for the cowardice of a preening egotist. Fascism is owed no welcome mat.
On Thursday night, community members once again rallied outside of the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in Chicago. Led by young Black organizers, those present attended with a dual purpose: to show love for the young people caged inside the facility, and to demand the ouster of a States Attorney whose policies have kept so many of them locked away.
While many have rallied against the reelection of States Attorney Anita Alvarez in recent months, the children whose lives have been destroyed by Alvarez’s hard line policies have largely been left out of the electoral discussion. Activists and organizers who have made a point of returning to the juvenile detention center in recent years, however, wanted to make sure that the public remembered these young victims of Alvarez’s blunt and thoughtless policies.
Chicago organizer Mariame Kaba, who has long advocated for Black, incarcerated youth, was in attendance, and spoke on the need to oust Alvarez “to save the lives of children.” During her remarks, Kaba explained that those working under Alvarez are not allowed the discretion of pursuing less severe penalties against youth offenders, but are instead expected to pursue the stiffest penalties as a matter of policy.
In her youth advocacy work, Kaba is all too familiar with Alvarez’s harsh treatment of juvenile offenders. “The Illinois Juvenile Justice Act explicitly states that incarceration should be a last resort for children,” says Kaba. “For my part, I believe that jail and prison is no place for children or anyone else. But Anita Alvarez has repeatedly instructed her Assistant State Attorneys to seek maximum penalties against children. Her challenger Kim Foxx confirms as much in her response to a survey issued by the Juvenile Justice Initiative of Illinois.”
In the response from Foxx that Kaba is referring to, the challenger had this to say about Alvarez’s treatment of youth offenders:
“Unfortunately for our youth, Ms. Alvarez has taken discretion away from frontline ASAs. In juvenile court she has also directed her ASAs to seek the maximum penalty in every case and seek approval to reduce charges or plea agreements that don’t offer the maximum sentence. This directly violates the spirit and text of the Juvenile Court Act and is also the reason that bench and jury trials have increased at juvenile court.”
None of this should be surprising to anyone who is familiar with Alvarez’s stance on life sentences for children.
The impressively long list of egregious acts perpetrated by Alvarez’s office sadly includes her successful effort to uphold the life sentence of a juvenile offender, even after the Supreme Court determined that mandatory life sentences, without parole, for juvenile offenders amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Adolfo Davis, whose childhood was marked by abject poverty and untreated mental health issues, was 14 at the time of his conviction. Originally sentenced to life without parole, Davis was eligible for re-sentencing in 2012, after the SCOTUS decision on juvenile sentences was rendered. But Anita Alvarez vehemently opposed any reconsideration of Davis’ fate, and ultimately ensured that Davis will remain in prison for the rest of his life.
Among the speakers at Thursday night’s event at the juvenile detention center was Kaleb Autman, a student at the Village Leadership Academy, who noted that many of the youth inside the facility “look like me.” It was not the first time that Autman had addressed a crowd outside the facility, which he and other Village Leadership Academy youth have returned to numerous times, to demand the release of their peers and to remind those trapped inside that they are not forgotten. “We all know that Alvarez has to go,” Autman solemnly told the crowd, as those present watched children inside the facility pound windows, raise their fists, and form hearts with their hands.
Autman’s teacher at the Village Leadership Academy, Page May, does not mince words about what’s at stake in this election.”This is not a game,” says May. “So much is at stake: If re-elected Anita Alvarez will continue to criminalize, lock up, and cover up the murder of young Black people. Lives are on the line.” May, who was one of the event’s organizers, works closely with Black youth as an educator, and as an organizer with the grassroots group Assata’s Daughters. “The people who are most impacted by the actions of the States Attorney, young Black people, are not even allowed to vote,” May explains. “So last night, we rallied outside the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center to bring a message of love to the young people inside. The image of young folks banging on their cell windows will be at the front of my mind when I cast my vote next Tuesday.”
As a non-Black person of color who stands in solidarity with my Black friends and allies in struggle, I will also be keeping those children in my thoughts as I vote on Tuesday. Because each one of those children, locked away from any hope of a world that might help them heal and grow, deserves to have their abuser challenged by anyone who would claim to care about them.
In the words of Mariame Kaba, “Anita Alvarez is pro-criminalization of children. It’s time for her to go.”
Today is International Women’s Day, and I expect to see a great many posts about women who have changed the world. And even though I am sure there will be an unfortunate tendency to lift up accomplished, American white women, at the expense of militant freedom fighters, trans women and Black and Brown women, I know that the people I am fortunate enough to share space with online will present me with some quality reading material that will leave me more knowledgeable by the day’s end, and I am grateful for that.
But today, I can’t seem to turn my mind to celebration, to the extent that I would like to.
Today, I can’t stop thinking about the names that we won’t find in our social media timelines and newsfeeds. I am thinking about murdered trans women of color, Black women criminalized for defending their bodies from harm, and of missing an murdered Indigenous women.
But more than anything, I am thinking of a 4 year-old Native girl, whose name I don’t know. Kidnapped, raped and nearly strangled, all I know of her is that, in another life, she could have been my daughter, my sister or me. I know she suffered horribly at the hands of a man – a man who has now allegedly been apprehended, and who has been thrust into a system that has nothing to do with Native justice, Native healing or what’s best for this battered child.
Like all of our children, she will live her life as a survivor of the traumas we have survived as a people, and like too many of our women, she will live her life as a survivor of sexual violence. But today, she is four years old, and already facing the world as a survivor of her own journey through hell – a journey that will likely color the rest of her childhood, if not the rest of her life.
I do not say this to diminish the truth of this young girl’s resilience. Her blood carries the strength of a people who survived the massacre of a hundred million. Her very existence is a triumph against colonialism, and I believe in the power of a young Native heart to conquer all things. I myself have done a great deal of surviving, but I have also done many of the things survivors do when forced to walk wounded through this world. I have, at various times in my life, buried my heart and mind in drugs and alcohol, lost myself in abusive relationships, and walked a lonely path through my anger in despair.
If I myself had disappeared, during those dark days, those who knew me may have been scarred by my loss, but they would not have been shocked or even surprised. Because for years it seemed unlikely that my life’s journey would lead me to old age, health or happiness. Prison, death and a cycle of abuse from without and within were foreshadowed in chapter after chapter of my life, until a brighter day finally dawned.
On that day, I summoned the strength of my ancestors, and began a process of personal healing. No longer content with mere, survival, I started on a path toward something fuller, that had the potential to lift my voice and heal my soul.
And don’t we all deserve more than survival?
I, of course, was one of the lucky ones. Few of our women fall as far as I did and get back up. And when I see the harms that many Brown women and girls wear on their sleeves, I am frightened for them. I want them to find the kind of healing and hope that pulled me back from the abyss. I want them to find it much sooner, and without further tragedy in their lives. I want them to know their strength and their greatness, and to remember that one need not be spiritual to know that we carry both the impact of our ancestors trauma, and the power of their survival in our blood.
We are made of the stuff that survived the decimation of nations.
We are the flame that could not be snuffed out.
We are survival itself.
So when I think of this child, who I will likely never meet, I wonder, what can we do for her? What can we build in her name – a name we’ll likely never know – and in the names of all the women and children whose stories will remain untold?
Well, if you care to venture down this road of aspiration with me, I’d ask that you consider the following.
Self-Defense is Liberation
Both Black and Brown women are chronically criminalized for acting in defense of their own bodies. Countering this practice requires social transformative, but transformation takes time, and we have a right to survive, unviolated and free from harm, here and now.
We have a natural right to defend our bodies and the lives and well being of our children, by any means necessary.
I won’t delve into matters of self-defense too deeply here, as I have elaborated on such matters elsewhere, and I believe it is a topic worthy of separate discussion, but it is a subject that must be mentioned in any dialogue about what it means for us to survive, because if our women, girls and non-binary community members are going to survive a world that supports and facilitates their destruction, they must be allowed to be warriors in that world.
We must be allowed and even encouraged to take up whatever means of defense best protects us.
In Chicago, I helped found a collective called Lifted Voices. We are a group of Brown and Black women and non-binary people who organize in defense of women and non-binary people of color. Our vision of self-defense is cultural, political and personal, and we hold weekly self-defense classes to better equip our members, and our allies, to defend themselves in a world of racist, patriarchal violence.
The forces that destroy Black and Brown lives, and ravage the lives and bodies of women of color are unapologetic, and so are we. As organizers, we function within an abolitionist, transformative framework, that does not embrace the trappings of this system of justice, but our collective repudiation of punitive justice does not mean that we act gently in matters of survival and bodily autonomy. Our safety and dignity are paramount, and we believe that owning our ability to defend our own bodies is crucial to our fight for freedom.
It is important that we lift up the efforts of women and non-binary people who pursue militant and physical means of self protection. Our bodies have been under attack, under colonialism, since Columbus began sexually enslaving the women and children of the Taíno people. We must be supported in our efforts to beat back sexual violence – violence that we most frequently suffer at the hands of non-Native people.
But in any discussion of self-defense, it must be understood that whereas violence is destructive, defense is creative. Because while the act of meeting a raised fist with one’s own fist may at times repel the forces that seek to harm us, not everyone has the ability to meet physical violence with reactive force. Many are too old, too young, or simply lack the physical ability to strike back in their own defense. And for those of us whose able-bodied privilege may at times allow us to evade harm, such moments must be understood as battles within a larger war.
A series of moments in which we evade harm will not dismantle the mechanisms that inform those harms. We must therefore defend our lives more broadly, and with a creative eye toward transformation.
Native Justice Must Be Transformative
While there has been much discussion of reclaiming criminal jurisdiction over those who harm Native women, there has been far less discussion of reclaiming tribal mechanisms of justice.
At least 1 in 3 of our women will be sexually assaulted during their lifetimes, and in 86 percent of those cases, the perpetrator will be of non-Native descent. Given that most women and children, across racial and ethnic lines, are victimized by members of their own communities, this statistic powerfully communicates the ongoing legacy of colonialism. While Native communities certainly generate their own manifestations of misogyny and patriarchal violence, our women and girls remain a group that is largely acted upon by outside forces, enabled by the social and political disposability of our people.
Disturbing statistics, however, have at times limited our focus to issues that fail to strike at the heart of what’s killing us.
Given that any violation of a major crimes act on a reservation falls within the jurisdiction of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, many have turned their thoughts to matters of legal sovereignty. Federal authorities have shown a predictable disinterest in pursuing cases against those who rape Native women, and efforts to enable tribal courts to prosecute non-Native domestic abusers continue even today, despite legislative victories. But the theft of Native justice is not grounded in our lack of access to colonial constructs of crime and punishment.
In 1824, the Bureau of Indian Affairs began a long and tragic process of eroding what was left of our Native systems of justice. In spite of the violence of colonialism, many of our people had managed to hold onto restorative processes that aimed to address harm in a constructive manner. While various penalties for harm certainly existed, many Natives sought to address harm through a lens of healing and restoration, rather than using the extremity of one’s punishment as a metric of justice. Those who did embrace such ideas were ultimately robbed of their expression by the same government that’s sought to erase and destroy all things Native, throughout the course of its history.
So what does it mean to reclaim justice? Does it mean reclaiming jurisdiction? Certainly. We cannot decide for ourselves what justice looks like while living under the absolute power of colonial authority. But when we bring justice home, what does that justice look like? Is it the localization of white justice? Or should we perhaps learn from the failures of the larger American system – one that is grounded in punishment, violence and the re-institution of slavery? Why would we, as survivors of colonial violence, seek to refashion American “justice” into something that might suit our own needs?
The trappings of a system that is grounded in our annihilation can only further that system’s original intent. The very idea of America is built upon a false narrative of noble discovery and proud settlement. This narrative requires the erasure of Native peoples ground under colonialism, and the assimilation of all those who would benefit from colonial constructs. Our survival cannot be dependent upon the social and legal mechanisms that have and continue to crush and kill us.
Efforts like the Hollow Water First Nations Community Holistic Healing Circle, which aimed to bring restorative solutions to communities ravaged by alcoholism and sexual abuse, provide a glimpse at what community based solutions for Native people may look like, but unlike colonial law, such solutions do not come in hard-and-fast, one-size-fits all packages. Developed most extensively in the Yukon, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, recent incarnations of Native restorative circle practices have in fact sprung up in Native communities throughout North America, without a singular rule book to govern their implementation. This autonomy is crucial to any re-evolution of Indigenous justice, because the needs of our people are as varied as the lands we live on, and we must be allowed to pave our own paths forward.
These efforts must be supported both on and off of what is legally recognized as Native land. Because while reservations are undeniably microcosms of the larger spectrum of colonial violence, Native women and children who do not live on reservations are not exempt from the statistics that quantify our struggles. Thus, we must build culture, on and off of what is recognized as Native land, because every inch of this continent is in fact Indigenous land, and although our numbers have been greatly reduced by genocide, we continue to walk these lands, from shore to shore. We must have the power to build with Natives, and non-Natives, to create systems that transform communities, making the harms that shatter so many lives increasingly unthinkable, rather than simply addressed through punishment.
It is well established that merely punishing a crime does not address the root issues that facilitated the harms involved in that crime. And truly, how could the act of punishment accomplish such a thing? How could perpetuating a cycle of colonial violence – one that includes every layer of Native suffering – create spaces where such harms fail to exist in recur?
We will not save ourselves by owning the tools of our oppressors. Our cultures – those that endure, those that have been reborn and those that are being fashioned and refashioned in real time – are more beautiful than anything that has sprung from the dominant culture of the United states. Assimilation and death are not forces of creation, and therefore cannot yield anything life-giving in this world.
Colonial violence and mechanisms of “justice” mark far too many pages of our histories. A future in which that young Native girl, whose name I will never know, can heal, and where others like her are less likely to experience the trauma of rape, and other forms of brutality, must be built by those who believe in transformation. It must be built from love, with the hopes and values of our communities woven into the fabric of its justice. It must be built not in the image of this system, but in opposition to it. Because whether we are confronting the violence of rape, toxic water or police violence, everything that is destroying the lives of our women and girls flows from the heart of this system. And everything that will free us must flow from us.
On December 15, I was one of a group of 16 protesters who went to jail for an act of civil disobedience at a protest demanding the resignations of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. Our demands were largely symbolic, given that neither Emanuel nor Alvarez has ever been moved by cries for justice or calls for decency. Deeply embedded in the monied, Democratic establishment, Emanuel and Alvarez are both quite accustomed to dodging the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and emerging when the onslaught has ceased, more smug and destructive than ever.
But in the wake of the scandal surrounding Laquan McDonald’s death, there was a sense of hope in the air, amid the sadness and rage of those who’ve tangled with the likes of Alvarez in the past – a hope that maybe, this time, the rest of the county might see her as clearly as we do. And while any opportunity to oust Emanuel seems either far-fetched or far off, Anita’s looming reelection fight offered an opportunity for the public to approach the polls with fresh memories of her complicity with police violence.
Chicago, of course, has become something of a national focal point in discussions of police violence. The familiar “a few bad apples” argument that is often invoked to defend police in general is now being applied at a national level, with police supporters characterizing Chicago’s entire department as a “bad apple” that doesn’t reflect the standards of other major cities.
While this argument is obviously reductivist, and erases the harsh realities of policing on a national scale, widespread coverage of our city’s police brutality scandals has brought meaningful attention to conflicts between police and Chicago’s most marginalized communities. Our city’s police are now widely recognized as being representative of what the Civil Rights Movement, in all its greatness could not overcome – and of the injustices at the heart of the current movement for Black lives.
The grievances at the heart of a movement that has electrified streets in cities across the country are written on the walls of our city’s police departments. Murder, corruption and a hardened indifference to Black life and death are the hallmarks of “law and order” in Chicago. But in late 2015, something changed. For what may well be a fleeting moment, the mainstream media has actually begun writing headlines that match the stories unfolding in our communities. For once, those most affected by anti-Blackness aren’t the only ones demanding consequences for police violence. And the names Black-led groups have been lifting up for months and years, of young people like Dominique Franklin and Rekia Boyd, are part of a larger chorus with a clear demand: that someone actually be held accountable for this violence.
But as we’ve seen, accountability doesn’t come easy when it comes to police violence. With few indictments leveled against police who kill, and even fewer convictions, police simply aren’t subject to the laws they are meant to enforce. And regardless of our various takes on issues of police brutality, we all know that cops very rarely answer for their crimes. Even those who support and defend police know full well that their acts of brutality go unchecked. In general, such people are simply willing to accept – or even support – such actions, as being the price of “safety” in an unkind world. Because regardless of how they might publicly represent their positions, many Americans embrace the characterizations of primetime police procedurals that portray police as protectors and avengers who sometimes have to cross ethical boundaries to keep us safe. This is a standard, mainstream perspective, propped up by glorified, fiction-driven stereotypes and illusions born of a need for the world to be divided into heroes and villains. Believing that criminals endanger us, and police protect us, allows us to accept the brutality that goes on around us as being, at worst, an unfortunate product of necessity. But, in truth, this perception is the last stronghold of those this system is actually designed to protect and comfort, because in 2016, the city I love, and plan to call home for the rest of my life, is riddled with enough bullets to shatter such illusions.
Chicago, perhaps more than any city in the country, proves that allowing police to operate outside the law does not keep communities safe. While police officials have steadily blamed a lack of community cooperation for their inability to close cases, their rank and file make the alienation of those communities a daily practice. For Black youth, police harassment is a standard expectation, and police violence a tragic fact of life. And Chicago’s street violence, which has become the stuff of Spike Lee films and late-night comedy routines, has raged on, at best unaffected by the presence of police, and at worst, compounded by it.
But how does a community confronted with such an intractable source of harm fight back? In Chicago, young Black people – and young Black women in particular – have led campaigns demanding accountability, but those waging these battles face formidable bureaucratic obstacles. Whether the demand is reparations for police torture, or the firing of a killer cop like Dante Servin, these are complex struggles that can drag on for years, fatiguing and testing the will of all those who care enough to fight.
But there is someone who can be held accountable, here and now, and in the simplest manner our system affords. Anita Alvarez can be voted out of office.
Alvarez, who has not merely failed to hold police accountable for their crimes, but actually participated in cover-ups and the prosecution of whistleblowers, is an elected official. That means that our city and county are actually afforded a very basic opportunity, on a semi-regular basis, to co-sign or reject her behavior. And while no number of feet on the streets can dislodge a killer cop if the system refuses to bend, Alvarez is wholly vulnerable to the will of the people.
But do enough of “the people” really care?
The young Black people spearheading the #ByeAnita campaign certainly hope so. They have lashed out against the beleaguered State’s Attorney, interrupting one reelection event after another, and propelling Alvarez’s dubious record into the national spotlight. But will those who don’t reap the daily consequences of her actions show up to defend Black lives?
As I stood at the intersection of Clark and Congress on the 15th of December, waiting to be arrested with my friends for shutting down traffic, I knew we were inconveniencing a great many people. I knew that, amid the cacophony of car horns blasting all around us, a great many commuters were thinking, or even declaring, “Sure, Alvarez and Emanuel are bad, but what have I done to deserve this?” And while I felt for good people, with good values, who may have been delayed on their way to do something that mattered, my feelings on the subject are largely less generous.
The “what have I done to deserve this” attitude about the inconvenience of protest is a common one, but for many who would say such things, I simply have to ask, what have you done to deserve peace? What have you done to defend the lives of those murdered and ground under by this system? And when have you made the slightest effort to correct the course of this racist society?
Do you believe, as J. Edgar Hoover once said, that “justice is merely incidental to law and order,” or do believe that we have a duty to demand that right be done in our names? And if you don’t believe that this system should be held accountable for the murder and abuse of people of color, how dare you speak at all?
If you are a resident of Cook County who believes that the trappings of this democracy have any value at all, you have a fateful decision to make that speaks to both your character and the character of the place you call home. You have an opportunity to do more than shake your head over tragic headlines or acknowledge that protesters might have a point. You have a chance to show up and make a single declaration for the sake of justice that will help shape the experiences of those who are subject to this system.
You have a chance to prove that, unlike Alvarez, you are not complicit with the violence that has been committed in your name.
A vote for Alvarez is plainly and simply a vote for anti-Blackness. It is a vote for the status quo of police violence and for the climate of fear in our city streets. And if you believe in voting at all, failing to show up for young Black people, for Black lives and for the very idea of justice means you have no right to open your mouth about violence, corruption, racial tension or anything else that’s tearing our city apart.
If you believe in the ballot, but choose to throw away this most basic of opportunities to affirm the value of Black lives, you deserve every inconvenience you are subjected to. And if you don’t help to displace Alvarez, please don’t expect me to care the next time I hear your car horn blasting as we shut down a city street. Because if you don’t care about justice, then you don’t deserve peace.